A national assembly of Evangelical Lutherans urged its bishops Saturday to refrain from defrocking gay and lesbian ministers who violate a celibacy rule, but rejected measures that would have permitted ordaining gays churchwide.
Still, advocates for full inclusion of gays were encouraged, calling the resolution a powerful statement in support of clergy with same-gender partners. The conservative group Lutheran CORE, however, said bishops will now feel more secure in ignoring denomination policy.
The 538-431 vote came on the final day of a weeklong meeting in Chicago -- and after emotional debate over how the denomination should interpret what the Bible says about homosexuality.
Like other mainline Protestant groups, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been struggling for decades to reconcile differences on the issue. An ELCA task force is near the end of an eight-year study on human sexuality, which is expected to culminate in the 2009 release of a social statement that will heavily influence church policy.
The assembly voted to refer proposals on ordaining gays and blessing same-sex couples to the task force so the panel can make policy recommendations part of its report.
The current clergy standards require ministers to "abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." Earlier this year, Bradley Schmeling, an ELCA pastor in Atlanta, was removed from the clergy roster after he told his bishop that he was in a relationship with a man. However, even before Saturday's vote, liberal-leaning bishops had refused to enforce the rule.
In the adopted resolution, the assembly "urges and encourages" bishops to either refrain from or "demonstrate restraint in disciplining" ministers who are in a "mutual, chaste and faithful committed same-gender relationship."
"This is huge," said Phil Soucy of Lutherans Concerned/North America, which lobbies on behalf of gays and lesbians. "More than half of the people in the Churchwide Assembly have said don't punish anyone for what is a simple violation of the policy, where the offense is simply that they have a partner."
At the Chicago gathering, dozens of gay and lesbian ministers and congregants defiantly proclaimed their sexuality. They distributed a prayer booklet that included first-person essays on the pain of being forced to choose between ministry and a lifelong partner. Theological liberals believe that the overarching message of Scripture is full acceptance for all people.
But Jaynan Clark Egland, president of the conservative WordAlone Network, said the resolution "leaves the ELCA with inconsistent patterns of discipline and standards."
Conservatives believe the Bible bars gay relationships. "To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we're about to do so in Christ's Church," Egland said.
Lutheran CORE scheduled a September meeting to plan its next step. But the Rev. Mark Chavez of WordAlone says conservatives aren't planning a split from the denomination.
Membership in the 4.8 million-member ELCA, like other mainline churches, has declined over the last two decades; only 30 percent of Evangelical Lutherans attend worship weekly.
The 2.5 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in St. Louis, believes the Bible is literally true and does not ordain gays.